In mainstream films as well as the popular imagination, the town of Gurgaon always comes across as a hinterland which mostly serves as Delhi’s underbelly. In Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon, the space gains a sense of autonomy in the narrative as the film becomes almost a socio-economic, political and historical treatise. It turns an unflinching gaze into what is otherwise considered to be the technological and financial hub in the region, the crowning glory of development in the Hindi heartland. The ramifications are toxic and menacing thus making the viewing experience deeply satisfying. It reminds about Nietzsche’s metaphor which says, “And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”.
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At the exposition of the plot, the film is an obvious nod to a pair of New Hollywood classics; The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) and Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974). Like the Coppola film, it begins with the family of the Singhs headed by the patriarch Kehri Singh. His oldest son is the temperamental Nikki who is a trigger away from resorting to violent measures. The youngest one is a daughter, Preet who is clearly the apple of her father’s eye and the reluctant heir to the real-estate empire which his father had built and registered in her name. The plot takes off when she returns after completing her studies abroad and merely by her demeanour and mostly her gender, she manages to upset what has otherwise been a masculine status-quo, setting off a chain of events. The film’s relation to the Polanski noir is perhaps even more nuanced. While there is an underlying current of real-estate development and water scarcity running in the plot, Gurgaon adapts the idea of using a space and the character of a primordial father figure from Chinatown in order to underline a history of violence and its gendered nature, respectively. Having said that, the film is in no way an imitation of the earlier films but rather takes the right cues and skilfully uses them as take-off points to explore its own set of concerns.
One of the first things that strikes you about the film is its technical competence. Given the context of mainstream films in India, this kind of an effort reaffirms one’s faith in cinematic craft. Vivek Shah’s cinematography succeeds in capturing the paradoxical nature of the space where a high tech and almost futuristic urban sprawl seemed to have grown amid a vast expanse of toxic wastelands giving out foul stench and a breeding ground for all sorts of vermin and scavengers. Most strikingly, there is a smog like texture which almost engulfs the entire film hanging about each frame like a corrosive venom corrupting everything it touches. The compositions are oftentimes enough to communicate the narrative without a word being uttered. One can cite the example of a family meeting presided over by the patriarch where the mother is also present in the same room as a part of the gathering. However, the scene is shot from a distance and a vertical window frame separates her from the rest of the family thus visually reinforcing the idea of a male dominated order of things. Gurgaon also offers a strikingly new aural experience with its clinically precise and economic sound design. The dialogue is not just kept minimal but even the level is adjusted in a way so that it never takes precedence over the diegetic sounds, thus letting the ambient soundscape communicate along with the dialogue.
The second half of the film deals with a kidnapping and extortion plan leading to tragic and violent consequences and is throughout marked by Kehri Singh’s demons taking over his present circumstances, revealing a brutal past and foreshadowing an equally cruel predicament. In the absence of new threads in the plotline and a sudden bout of flashbacks, the film seems somewhat loose compared to the taut narration of the first half. It loses momentum and becomes repetitive in terms of images for a considerable stretch of duration, before picking it up again towards the end. However, these scenes are like a tour de force in acting by Pankaj Tripathy. He wears an aloof aura about him that blends menace and melancholia in equal measures. His voice is a raspy mumble, as if his insides have all dried up and corroded, and may well be a reference to but definitely not an attempt to mimic Marlon Brando in The Godfather. And his transformation as he almost ages before the camera is truly remarkable.
While it is not a criticism or even any comparison, the content of the film with its epic overtures and its central themes of family, loyalty, betrayal, violence and filicides and fratricides in context of the greater history, makes one yearn for a melodramatic mode of address. This is not to say that the gritty realism of the film fails to leave an impact, but it’s just that even the popular melodrama or its manifestation in any form makes certain articulations and expressions possible in cinema, bringing out the epic even within the mundane. But nevertheless, Gurgaon succeeds in painting a hellish portrait of a region inhabited by tarnished souls condemned to dwell and die here. The film delves into the history of violence which is the necessary evil, the devil’s pay for rapidly bringing about the industrial future out of a pastoral past. And that is why, as evident in the final scene and the final dialogue about history left unfinished, every mention of the past is inevitably accompanied with blood being spilled on the ground.
Arup Ratan Samajdar